By Bunmi Ajilore.
In 2010, when BP’s “Deepwater Horizon” offshore rig exploded and leaked for 87 days in the Gulf of Mexico; eleven lives were lost, 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the sea, affecting a vast expanse of waters (and adjoining lands) along the southern coast of the United States. Billions of dollars were lost as businesses that depend on the sea – mainly fishing, shrimping, tourism and other businesses – were shut down, navigation halted, employments lost, means of livelihoods taken away, and the whole ecosystem (from water birds to other sea organisms) negatively impacted. Then, the proposed cost of clean-up ran into billions of dollars.
It was an inauspicious moment that again brought to the fore the raging and ever-present debate on the negative impacts of conventional fuel/energy sources (oil, coal and gas), especially their deleterious effects on the environment and climate change, vis-à-vis the need for the world to move on to cleaner, renewable or alternative sources of energy (called green energy by their advocates).
This debate is still going on in many forums today, and this is a debate that will not go away for many years to come, thanks to the heavy dependence of the world’s economy (and that of leading G8 countries such as US, Russia, China) on conventional energy sources – oil, gas and coal – , and their market/competitive advantage over alternative energies; and no thanks to their own notoriety as major contributors to pollution, climate change and their adverse environmental impacts from the level of extraction to refining, transportation, consumption and even the by-products.
In recent times, one group among the alternative sources of energy that has garnered international attention and is being pushed by environmentalists and policymakers alike is bio-fuels. Bio-fuels are derived from biomass of living matter. Sources could include anything from waste to timber to ethanol distilled from crops. According to an IAASTD brief, they are “products of biomass that have been converted into liquid, solid or gas form, depending on the raw material base and the technology employed, for energy generation”.
There are different forms of bio-fuels. There are solids like firewood, wood chips and bagasse; liquid bio-fuels such as bio-ethanol, bio-diesel and plant oils; and gaseous bio-fuels, mainly bio-gases produced from anaerobic digestion of organic wastes. Traditionally, millions of people in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa are involved in the use of solid bio-fuels, most importantly firewood. However, the kind of bio-fuels being promoted recently by green energy advocates and some policymakers are the liquid and gaseous ones.
Besides, the manifold vices of conventional energy sources – which include pollutants emissions from vehicles and industries, leakage and oil spillage, gas flaring etc, and their attendant contribution to environmental degradation – ensure that alternative energy sources like biofuels will always look appealing and will be advocated by many. But, as a source of renewable energy, are biofuels the answer to the world’s quest for cleaner, greener energy sources?
First, for all there are the vaunted benefits – like a move away from dirty energy from fossil fuels, energy security (borne out of national interests), climate change mitigation, rural development programmes associated with production (especially bio-ethanol from crops) and creation of new industries and jobs – the production of bio-fuels (in their current form) is neither economically competitive nor environmentally sustainable.
For one, bio-fuel production encourages a precarious food-or-fuel struggle as farmers are forced to make a decision between growing their crops for the food market or the energy market; it draws a confrontational line between energy security and food security and spawns a direct competition for valuable crops – e.g. maize, sugarcane, soybean, palm oil – between less than a billion people who – own automobiles and – need bio-fuels for energy and the world’s poorest people – about 3 billion, and many of them in Africa – who need the crops for food. This competition for resources causes increase in food prices and further increases the number of the world’s hungry and poor.
Second, bio-fuels cost more per distance travelled even with the big and unscaleable subsidies given to producers (which are not factored into overall cost). On average, it clocks up about 30% fewer kilometers per litre compared to gasoline or PMS. Therefore, more fuel is needed to go the same distance and this often leads to the problem of constant refueling when travelling a long distance, a problem which may be exacerbated when the limited distribution network of bio-fuels is considered.
Third, and perhaps the most important, most bio-fuels do little, on balance, to reduce greenhouse gases and environmental degradation. Many inputs (and actors) involved in the bio-fuel value chain still use dirty energy from fossil fuels; from seed production stage to planting, to the production of fertilizers and pesticide used in raising the bio-fuel crops, to harvesting, storage and transportation, conventional fuels are main sources of energy. Also, actions like deforestation for the purpose of establishing bio-fuel crops, coupled with the heavy extraction of groundwater for irrigation and their environmental impacts, add up to have little or no net effect on the ability of bio-fuels to reduce greenhouse gases.
In conclusion, while bio-fuels as alternative energy sources might be a promising idea, in their current state of evolution, they do not seem capable of solving the greener energy problem. Although, a crop like sugarcane and second generation bio-fuels from cellulosic ethanol from non-food crops like switch grass and other grasses may still hold some hope for future viability, present information and facts dictate that restraint is shown in such hope and advocacy, as intensive production of such non-food crops will still require a trade-off and competition with food crops for land, water and other vital but limited resources.
—About Bunmi Ajilore—
Bunmi Ajilore is an eco-toxicologist/environmental biologist with a background in agriculture. He is currently a doctoral scholar with a passion for the environment and agriculture, especially the complex interaction between the two. He likes writing, exchanging ideas and debating issues with friends in his spare time. He can be reached on Twitter at @bunmyajilore and by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.